In my new novel, Aphrodite’s Tears, the heroine Oriel is hired to work on an archaeological site on the island of Helios. As she approaches the island by plane, this is her first impression:
Standing out with breathtaking detail in the dazzling afternoon sunlight, like a primitive red-and-green sculpture arising from the depths of a peacock-blue sea, the island of Helios seemed like an inhospitable rock, a place out of time.
Inhospitable: it’s a sense anyone can get about a strange new place in which you are the outsider. Yet Oriel is coming to a Greek island, and as she discovers, the Greeks place a great deal of importance on making visitors and guests feel welcome.
Their attitude to newcomers dates back to Ancient Greek times, when people saw it as their duty to be hospitable. The custom of xenia, which translates to ‘guest friendship’, meant welcoming guests and their associates with genuine warmth. It was not simply a polite courtesy, but a religious obligation – the king of the gods himself, Zeus, was the protector of guests, and to be discourteous to a guest was to invite his wrath.
Indeed, a recurrent theme in the stories of Ancient Greece was that a guest would turn out to be a god in disguise, and those who had been hospitable to that god would be rewarded. This theme is also found in the stories of other religions; for example, in this verse from the Book of Hebrews in the Bible: ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ And of course, it’s a pivotal concept in the fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve: it is because the prince did not offer hospitality to a fairy when she knocked at his door, seeking shelter from the rain, that he was transformed into the Beast.
Damian, the hero of Aphrodite’s Tears and a Greek through and through, quotes Khalil Gibran: ‘If it were not for guests, all houses would be graves.’ He introduces Oriel to the Greek custom of philoxenia, which means ‘friend to the stranger’. It’s all about having an awareness of the needs of strangers and the willingness to meet those needs.
‘If you knock on any door in Greece,’ Damian explains, ‘whether it belongs to a rich or poor house, you will always be offered a glass of water accompanied by a spoonful of sweet preserve. It’s a gesture of hospitality, a Greek way of welcoming the guest.’
Oriel loves this custom, and so do I. The wonderful warmth and hospitality of the Greeks is one of the reasons I was so enchanted by this part of the world when I first visited, and on each subsequent visit. Straight away I was made to feel at home. I recall shopping on the Greek islands before my wedding, and in so many shops I was offered a cup of coffee and I would chat away with the proprietor, so that a simple shopping trip turned into a wonderful social occasion.
In fact, many a time I have found time slipping away in Greece while being made welcome by the local people, everywhere from tavernas and restaurants to museums and beauty spots. Of course, this made researching Aphrodite’s Tears a real delight.
Another aspect of hospitality in Greece that struck me is how generous the people naturally are. Presents are given freely, and those coffees I was offered in shops were always complimentary. When I was invited to a family’s home for what I expected to be a quick coffee, I was astonished to find myself led to a table laden with home-baked cake, an apple pie and koulourakia (Greek cookies). Two hours later I left that home very full indeed, but with such a warm glow thanks to the generosity of my new Greek friends.
Since I first travelled to Greece, in my early twenties, I have tried to embrace their custom of philoxenia. I especially enjoy cooking for my guests, and choosing thoughtful little gifts for them. When I wave off a smiling guest, I look heavenward and smile myself, at the thought of Zeus looking down at me, lightning bolt in hand.
So goes the ancient legend, sometimes Zeus himself would disguise himself as a mortal and test a person’s philoxenia. I like to think that should he do so with me, my hospitality would meet with his approval.